In the B&B we were staying in, we were without wifi, telephone signal, television and – in the midnight storm – we lost electricity too. On Sunday morning, we drove along country roads for a service at Hanover Church, Llanover, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. This is no ordinary church and it wasn’t going to be an ordinary service. The extraordinary story began over 150 years ago when the minister was the Revd Robert Thomas, who would serve the church for over three decades.
How proud he must have been when his son, Robert Jermain Thomas answered a call to ministry but, for him, it was to be the mission field. He went with the London Missionary Society to China. Sadly, his wife died there and, grief-stricken, he toured the north of the country near the border with Korea. A Korean came to him and begged him to bring the gospel to his country, though warning that the government had taken a hard line against foreigners and foreign religion. Robert heard the prompting of the Holy Spirit and, for some months, began sharing the good news around Pyongyang. There are different interpretations of what happened next but each has the same outcome; that this young Christian, still only 26 years old, was martyred for his faith.
This month marks the 150th anniversary of Robert’s death. Today, many Koreans travel on pilgrimage to Wales, and especially to Llanover, to see the church that gave them this man and, through him, the Gospel. I was there to lead a service of celebration – yes celebration – of his martyrdom, for we were joined by many Koreans who came up from Cardiff for this thanksgiving to mark the bringing of Christ’s light to their nation. They also brought a video of thanks for all the British servicemen who served and died in the Korean war in the 1950s.
This work of art depicting Robert Thomas is actually made of wheat grains stuck onto a paper screen and back-lit with Christ upon the cross. I did not know of this when I prepared my sermon on the text:
‘Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”’ (John 12:23-25 NRSVA)
I have preached in Korea with congregations of churches in their thousands, and I have seen their sacrificial ministry among the homeless, the unemployed and sex workers. It is awesome in its inspiration, and yet it is the Koreans who want to thank us for sowing that seed from which their Church has grown, and through Robert Thomas’ death they see “God glorified”.
In Christ’s love